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review 2016-08-28 12:27
Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter: Coyote Builds North America
Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter: Coyote Builds North America - Barry Holstun Lopez

GIVING BIRTH TO THUNDER is focuses on Native American tales of Coyote. They range from respectable to raunchy, definitively establishing Coyote’s place as a complex trickster-hero figure. However, it’s not entirely clear whether or not the author simply replaced tricksters from other tribal tales with Coyote himself. The book also pushes a “the single Native American culture” bias, but that probably has more to do with the dated academic standards of the 1970s than outright ignorance, as the author clearly respects the peoples of the stories he adapted.


The Coyote tales themselves are surprisingly lifeless, presumably due to their roots in oral tradition—every character states the actions they’re about to undertake, everything is described as simply as possible, etc. Normally an author would deserve credit for presenting so many conflicting stories with such an even tone, but it works against the book’s favor here. The term “bare bones” has never been more apt, although I could see the material working much better as an audiobook.


From a methodological standpoint, the author claims to have used multiple sources to transcript academic or oral stories into a literature-friendly whole. While there is a bibliography, Lopez doesn’t cite his sources for each specific story, so it’s difficult to determine exactly how much was changed from the original folklore in the process. In fact, there appears to be no consultations with actual Native Americans in the text at all. However, since the introduction examines the various problems of similar collections, such as problematic alterations for Western audiences, it’s not likely that any oversights were made on purpose.


It’s not a bad collection overall, and I have no doubts that it was fair for its day. Recommended for anyone genuinely interested in the material and willing to overlook some of its dated conventions.

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review 2016-07-13 21:29
The Hero With a Thousand Faces
The Hero With a Thousand Faces - Joseph Campbell

The idea that there is no such thing as an original story isn’t even original in of itself. Joseph Campbell may have coined the monomyth, but writers and orators have been following set standards and conventions for thousands of years. What set THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES apart is that it applies these conventions to worldwide religious/mythological beliefs and human psychology.


Whether or not the titular hero is a worthwhile concept depends entirely on how much the reader likes seeing Nietzsche’s übermensch conflated with the Aristotelian tragic hero and Freudian id. Campbell draws from a wide variety of sources for his analyzes, and he correlates them all to spirituality and a shared subconscious with some success. At the same time, Campbell’s comparative approach makes multi-faceted classic heroes and gods appear dull and shallow in contrast to the one-off monsters or problems they encounter. If Campbell has to remove key elements of his examples in order to make them fit his theory, shouldn’t that invalidate his claims of the hero’s universal appeal?


Campbell’s thesis is compromised by the time in which it was written. HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES primarily uses Freudian psychanalysis to support his claims, and he unfortunately embraces very outdated conventions in the process. Perhaps due to the academic writing conventions of the time, he also tends to over-describe everything. The end result is that Campbell goes on and on about evidence or theories that I, as a modern reader, know for a fact are inherently flawed without his adding any significant insight.


The biggest problem with the book is that Campbell wildly misinterprets his subject matter. While it’s easy to grasp basic ideas Campbell presents, the text itself fails to substantially support them. His ideas often prioritize the functions of gender or hierarchy, but the numerous supporting examples he gives prioritize action and effect instead. The discrepancy could be explained by overreliance on 20th century gender roles, but Campbell is the first to claim that gender doesn’t matter. The contradictions are rarely resolved because he goes on to write about the dreams of random strangers or completely different myths instead. It’s telling that best written parts of the book are where Campbell focuses on obstacles instead of archetypes.  


Many of his sources date from the 1930s or before, and it shows. Even though he goes out of his way to condemn some of his peers’ imperialistic attitudes, Campbell can be just as judgmental. His opinions and exotification of aboriginal practices in particular is damning enough, but his some of his scientifically improbable “sources” read more like propaganda or bad pulp fiction. It wouldn’t be a problem if these segments weren’t used to support huge chunks of the monomyth. The issue is not a matter of offensiveness; if I can’t trust the accuracy of the material, I cannot trust the analysis thereof either. 


My pagan book club had a lot of fun discussion about the book, though, so at least I’m not walking away with a completely negative experience. Not recommended for solitary reading, in any case. 

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